Project aims to take the heat out of environmental disputes

Published 30 April 2008

jprior.jpgAn innovative project being launched this week aims at helping to avoid, mitigate or resolve environmental disputes.

“SpeakSoftly” – a joint venture between the University of New England’s Centre for Environmental Dispute Resolution (CEDR) and the Border Rivers-Gwydir Catchment Management Authority (BRGCMA) – is one of the first conflict-resolution projects undertaken by any Catchment Management Authority.

Initially, “SpeakSoftly” is offering free online training in environmental negotiation – using slides, video, simulations and short quizzes – for anyone around the world. The next stage – in late May or early June – will be face-to-face training during a two-day workshop in Moree for about 15 people who have completed the online training. The workshop will focus on developing consensus-building skills among those with an interest in the management of the Gwydir Wetlands.

UNE Senior Lecturer Julian Prior (pictured here), the Director of CEDR, has conducted research with 11 Regional Vegetation Management and Water Management Committees (eight of them in the BRGCMA area) that, he said, “clearly demonstrated that training in negotiation, conflict resolution and consensus building would have greatly benefited the reaching of agreement within these committees”.

“Since 1999, stakeholders in regional NSW, including those in the Gwydir Wetlands, have been involved in a series of negotiations on water allocation and native vegetation,” Mr Prior said. “Some of those negotiations continued for up to five years, and a few ended up in court. In many cases, in the absence of skills in negotiation and consensus building, such disputes can be highly adversarial and confrontational – each party taking up an inflexible position rather than negotiating on the basis of their best interests. And court decisions tend to be based on points of law and legal precedent, not necessarily the best environmental outcomes.”

“In the current climate we can expect such disputes to continue,” he said. “This project aims at preparing stakeholders – including farmers, members of community groups, and employees of natural resource management agencies – to enter a negotiation with the understanding that a successful outcome need not be in the interests of just one of the parties, and the skills to work towards an outcome that incorporates all parties’ interests. At the moment, 80 per cent of people assume that environmental negotiations are a ‘win-lose’ process. If we can raise the capacity of the community to understand that this need not be so, we can reduce conflict.”

Mr Prior said that UNE’s involvement in the “SpeakSoftly” project reflected the University’s commitment to community engagement and regional development, and that the BRGCMA was undertaking the project in accordance with its roles in both community capacity building and providing support for sustainable wetland management.

Monitoring and assessment of this initial online and face-to-face “SpeakSoftly” training will be used in the development of further training.

THE PHOTOGRAPH of Julian Prior expands to show a computer screen displaying the “SpeakSoftly” Web site.